Monday, April 23, 2007

Shakespeare's Birthday

April 23 is designated as Shakespeare's birthday. It's also the date of his death. There's some factual basis for this date--William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, when it was the custom for that to happen 3 days after birth. But there's some evidence his family celebrated April 22 as his actual birthday.

However it is parsed, it's appropriate for the greatest known playwright to have his birth celebrated in spring, for the springtime festivals from time immemorial were the wellsprings of theatre. So much of Shakespeare's theatre is related specifically to the festival tradition in England.

Back at Knox College when I was a student, the English and Theatre departments threw a Shakespeare's Birthday party on the closest weekend. When everyone was sufficiently lubricated, scripts would be passed around, and classic scenes performed. I recall doing the Porter scene from Macbeth one year. These festive readings all led up to the main tradition of the party: our shy, older English department chairman (though I suppose he may have been only in his 50s then) would read Romeo in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, with one of an endlessly renewed selection of lovely female students.

The Shakespeare's Birthday party was a rite of spring at Knox, where the winters on the Illinois prairie were long and hard, and spring was short but spectacularly green and beautiful.

One of Shakespeare's greatest plays, As You Like It, begins in a harsh winter and ends in a magical spring. In honor of the day, I've posted extensively on it, over at Stage Matters.

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